Recently many ABC employees were fortunate to attend a “Sake Seminar,” hosted by Donna Gardella, a “Certified Sake Specialist” for Southern Wines and Spirits. I must admit that before this seminar the one thing I knew was that good sake should be served cold, while the warm stuff tends to be the cheap stuff. After this seminar, I have a much greater appreciation for the product, for its history and for the different levels of quality. The seminar was held at a local Italian restaurant, which seemed a strange choice, but we found that the sakes paired quite well with some classic Italian dishes. Many Italian dishes are seafood-based, like linguine with clams, salmon ravioli and the mussels with sun-dried tomatoes, that I ordered, but even marinara-based dishes paired quite well, so sake doesn’t have to be paired with just Asian cuisine.
Sake has a 3,000-year history, though current levels of refinement began about 1,000 years ago. Sake is made from rice, water, koji and yeast, therefore it is always gluten-free and contains no sulfites. There is no sugar in rice, therefore no simple fermentation process can occur. Koji is a rice mold that helps break down the starch into fermentable sugars and defines the end-style of the sake more than any other ingredient. The main distinction between the three tiers of sake is the amount of milling the rice grains receive: the more milling the higher the quality of sake. Milling is the breaking down of the external layers of the grain to get to the starch, and was originally done by tooth, yes human tooth, so be glad we are in the post-industrial age of machines. At 15% alcohol, sake tends to have a little more alcohol than most wines, though it is closer to a beer in its production methodology.
At the first tier, or the most common sakes, we find Junmai-shu (which means “pure rice”) and Honjozo. The former uses only rice while the latter allows for other alcohol and flavors to be added. These are the sakes that some people serve warm, though during a Florida summer, cool refreshes better. What surprised me about the basic Gekkeikan Haiku Junmai ($14 for a 750ml) was the sweetness on the finish, with notes of pear or apple, while the Japanese-sourced Yoshinogawa Echigo Junmai had more complex, mineral notes and a tart finish.
The second tier sakes had a minimum of 40% of the rice grain milled away and are called Junmai Ginjo or Ginjo (where again the latter can include the addition of alcohol and other flavors). Here my favorite was the domestic Sho Chiku Bai ($8 for a 300ml), which had ripe and fruity flavors with a silky smooth texture. I also enjoyed the G Joy Junmai Ginjo Genshu ($20 for a 750ml and $12 for a 375ml), which is undiluted and cask strength with a little more depth of flavor as well as alcohol content. This is for the people who like a bolder-flavored beer or wine. We sampled a Ginjo, the Momokawa Asian Pear ($12 for 750ml), which was soft and light, with sweet pear notes, and would be the perfect beginner’s sake.
The third, or top, tier includes the Junmai Daiginjo and the Daiginjo, where at least 50% of the rice grain is milled away (though it can be up to 95%). We all enjoyed the Shimizu-No-Mai “Pure Dusk” Junmai Daiginjo ($16 for a 300ml) from the Akido Mountains of Japan. This sake was light and delicate with citrus zest aromas and a smooth mouthfeel. The more classic Gekkeikan Horin Junami Daiginjo ($43 for a 750ml) harkens from Kyoto and is a favorite of the Emperor of Japan. It had more classic sake flavors with spicy notes, overlaying soft cantaloupe and honeysuckle aromas. These two tasted like the top tier, with more elegance and subtlety than anything served hot at your local sushi shop, and of course were the more expensive.
The other category that we sampled was the Nigori, or unfiltered sake, that tend to be sweeter and have an opaque creaminess. The domestic Sho Chiku Bai Nigori ($6 for a 375ml) was my favorite with tart and sweet flavors, an elegant mouthfeel with hints of coconut and mangosteen. We also tried the more available Momokawa Pearl Nigori Genshu ($12 for 750ml), which was fine but did not have the subtlety of the Sho Chiku Bai. All Nigoris need to be shaken before serving, to spread the creamy opaqueness throughout the bottle. They would pair perfectly with a light dessert or with spicier Asian dishes. Since they are sweeter, they can also work for beginners looking for the “Moscato of sake” (“a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” -syndrome).
Next time you are making some Asian food, or even Italian or Provencale dishes, think good quality sake, for they pair very well with a whole range of foods. Cool and refreshing, they don’t have the heaviness of certain wines or beers, and they can be just as subtle and complex as the best of both. Serve them in a rounded white wine glass, and you will get the best experience out of your high quality domestic or imported sakes. Cheers!
Daniel Eddy, Fine Wine Consultant for ABC in Gainesville, Florida
Wine Pairing Examiner for Examiner.com: http://www.examiner.com/wine-pairing-in-gainesville/daniel-eddy